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Exploring enclaves

Germany’s Cold War divisions created multiple enclaves Germany’s Cold War divisions created multiple enclaves Oscity
10 Jun
Geographical takes a look at the geography of some tricky international boundaries

A close look at Google Maps can reveal some very odd borders between countries. Often it seems one country has swallowed a little piece of another, and is quietly digesting it.

These tricky, indigestible zones are enclaves and exclaves. But which is which?

‘An enclave is a piece of another country within your own country. An exclave is a piece of your country in someone else’s country. It simply depends on which side of the fence you're on!’ says Brendan Whyte, Assistant Curator of Maps at the National Library of Australia.

But wait, there’s more. ‘India and Bangladesh each also have counter-enclaves: where there’s territory of one country inside an enclave of another country inside the first country,’ adds Whyte.

And one more point: ‘India has the world’s only counter-counter-enclave: a small piece of India – a single jute field – inside a counter-enclave of Bangladesh inside an enclave of India inside Bangladesh!’

Whyte calls enclaves ‘islands of one country inside another’ and just like desert islands, that means a chance to do things differently to life at home.

‘An enclave allows a resident to remain a citizen of his country, but enjoy any benefits of the neighbouring country, or at least have easy access to both,’ says Whyte.

1024px-Cooch Behar Palace in Cooch BeharCooch Behar Palace built in 1887, during the reign of Maharaja Nripendra Narayan of Cooch Behar State (Image: Amartyabag)

When we look at enclaves today, we’re usually looking at the leftovers from feudal states. The Peace of Westphalia ended the 30 Years War in 1648, and afterwards Europeans began to see state sovereignty in a new way. It was a move from feudal hierarchy to territorial sovereignty.

Imagine two people, one living under the feudal system and one who lives in a modern state. Whyte says the first will think, ‘I am the subject of the Duke who is a subject of the King who is the subject of the Emperor. But the King might make someone else the Duke, or transfer the Duke’s lands to someone else’. The second person will think ‘I am a citizen of France – whether France is a kingdom or a republic, I am still French’.

‘Thus enclaves are a survival from the feudal period, which sounds derogatory and suggests they are obsolete, but represents a tradition of many centuries for those that survive in Europe,’ says Whyte.

Enclaves are more than just a European quirk too. Cooch Behar was a small state in northern Bengal that fought a war with the Mughal Empire in the early 1700s. The peace treaty that ended the war apparently (there isn’t an existing copy to be found) gave territory to whoever was holding it at the time. The resulting patchwork boundary remained through British rule and into independence.

‘India fenced its main boundary with Bangladesh a decade ago, supposedly to stop illegal immigration, ‘terrorism’ and cattle rustling (Hindus don’t eat beef, Muslims do). The enclaves became trapped on the ‘wrong’ side of the fence, but their inhabitants had suffered ever since partition,’ says Whyte.

Baarle-Nassau frontiere cafeA café in Baarle-Nassau on the border with Belgium. The border is marked on the ground (Image: Jérôme)

While enclaves are often associated with big power politics and intractable disputes – such as Russia’s Kaliningrad or the ethnic enclaves in the former Yugoslavia – more fortunate enclaves also exist. Baarle-Nassau-Hertog, a village in the Netherlands, has thirty enclaves, and has become a tourist attraction in itself.

‘The problem is between governments who are trying to enforce a centralised nationalism and cannot accommodate complexities or exceptions,’ says Whyte. ‘Given the infamous bureaucracies in the subcontinent, it is not surprising officials in Delhi have difficulty comprehending enclaves in Bengal, hundreds of kilometres away,’ he adds.

‘Baarle-Nassau-Hertog is a good example to follow,’ says Whyte. ‘It was a problem in the interwar years with tariff differences between the two countries, but now is a tourist attraction and of great benefit to its region. The trick is to allow local officials (mayors, police sergeants, etc.) to solve problems with their counterparts in the other country rather than insist on any problem being solved by foreign ministry officials in the distant national capital.’

‘And given the bloody wars of the last century or two over borders, and the trends of government to enforce a uniform doctrine of nationality and nationalism over their countries, ignoring local traditions, histories and differences, to see an island of one citizenry successfully and happily accommodated inside the territory of another offers hope for peace, diversity and working cross-border relationships,’ he adds.

If you want to become an enclave spotter, Jan S Krogh’s website provides a comprehensive enclave and exclave list. For a witty exploration of many European enclaves, Passport to Enclavia by Vitali Vitaliev is now out on Kindle.

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